The Mighty Logo

When You’ve Experienced Trauma as a Highly Sensitive Person

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Does this sound familiar?

You’re feeling fine and going about your day when something catches you completely off guard. In a flash, your body comes alive with energy, your head is foggy, your thoughts spin and your hands feel clammy. Your emotions are huge, overwhelming. Shame, anger and/or fear overtake you and you want to lash out/hide/run away. You might feel frozen.

If we looked at what provoked this reaction, something probably made you feel unsafe (physically or emotionally): you felt shamed, rejected, abandoned or threatened.

The above experience describes a “trauma trigger.”

I’ve been there.

As a therapist who works with both Highly Sensitive People(HSPs) and trauma healing, it wasn’t until I started doing my own healing through a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that I realized I’d experienced trauma.

It took many years to realize that some of my emotional reactivity, anxiety and shame wasn’t about having a sensitive nervous system; it had to do with unhealed trauma.

I hadn’t realized how profoundly I’d been affected by years of childhood emotional abuse. Once I started understanding that trauma was the culprit behind my hypervigilance (scanning the environment for danger) and some intense emotional reactions, I could have more self-compassion and do the type of therapy needed to heal.

Ten years later, I’ve healed to the degree that my anxiety is minimal and I rarely have overwhelming emotional reactions. I feel safe in the world and in my relationships.

What Exactly is Trauma?

When I suggest a client has experienced trauma, 75% of people say, “I never thought of it that way” or “it wasn’t that bad — I wouldn’t call it trauma.” And I understand: when they hear that word, they think war veteran or rape survivor.

While people who’ve gone through the above are certainly trauma survivors, the definition of trauma is much broader than that.

Here’s the definition I like: trauma is anything that was too intense for your nervous systems to process in the moment.  

What Are Some Symptoms of Trauma?

One of the best ways to know if you’ve gone through trauma is to look at your symptoms. There are a whole host of trauma symptoms, but here are some of the most common that I see:

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Intrusive thoughts of the event
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mood swings

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of interest in pleasurable activities

Physical Symptoms:

  • Easily startled
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in eating and sleeping
  • Vague complaints of aches and pains throughout the body

Psychological Symptoms of Trauma:

  • Shame (a feeling that we are damaged/bad)
  • Denial that certain events happened
  • Irritability
  • Always on the lookout for potential danger
  • Taking too much responsibility for others
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Overwhelming fear
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Detachment from other people and emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression

Why Does It Matter?

You might say, why do we need to call it “trauma?” It’s over, so why focus on it?

There are some important reasons why we must name trauma:

  1. We can’t heal something undiagnosed. If you broke your arm but are calling it a sprain, you’ll never set the bone. If you know you’ve experienced trauma, you can get treatment specifically designed to heal it.
  2. It helps us understand ourselves. When we can see that our reactions aren’t are part of a constellation of symptoms, we start to understand ourselves in a more holistic way which invites self-compassion, another important component of healing.
  3. That which we keep inside festers. When we realize we’ve gone through something that’s still affecting us, we can start discussing it with safe people (or a therapist). This is the precursor to healing.

Are Highly Sensitive People More Susceptible to Being Traumatized Than Non-HSPs?

In a word, yes. As highly sensitive people, our nervous system is more finely-tuned than that of non-HSPs. This means we respond to all stimuli more strongly.

When we have positive experiences, we have the gift of feeling more excitement and joy than our non-HSP counterparts. If we’re lucky enough to have a supportive and positive family, community or work environment, we’ll likely flourish more than would a non-HSP.

Conversely, when we have a negative experience, we’ll feel more profound fear, hurt, etc. than those who don’t have a sensitive nervous system, and if we grew up in an unsupportive environment, we’re more likely to bear scars from it.

Because of this sensitivity to our environment, we’re more vulnerable to being traumatized by our experiences.

This Definition of Trauma Changes Everything

When we define trauma as anything that was too intense for your nervous systems to process in the moment, we can see bullying, being shamed or criticized frequently or publicly, or feeling chronically rejected or abandoned by a caregiver as traumatic.

There Are a Couple Types of Trauma worth Looking At:

1. “Little t” trauma.
This refers to experiences that don’t fall into the category of clearly recognizable trauma. “Little t” trauma includes non-life-threatening injuries, the death of a pet, harassment and the loss of significant relationships, to name a few, and the experience is extremely upsetting and overwhelming to the person experiencing it.

A caveat: the term “little t” trauma can sound like it’s minimizing the significance of an experience; I’m using it here with the opposite intent. Because traumas that fall under this category have often been minimized, this “little t” term (albeit flawed) is meant to validate that there’s a broader range of traumatic experiences than was previously recognized.

  1. Chronic trauma.
    This is another overlooked category of trauma. If parental rejection, criticism, emotional abandonment or abuse was a frequent part of your childhood, the impact is devastating. It can result in internalized shame, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.

Chronic trauma can involve chronic illnesses, neglect, psychological abuse, domestic violence or living in a country in or under threat of war. The impact of living in upsetting circumstances long-term leaves a profound mark- even more so if it goes on while we’re growing up.

Trauma is Contextual, Subjective and Can’t Be Ignored

Only you can say whether something was traumatic for you; no family member, friend or therapist can tell you what was/wasn’t traumatizing. Because our experiences interact with genetics, our nervous systems and previous life experiences, what’s traumatic for one person may not be for another. The question is whether an experience was overwhelmingly upsetting for you.

Discussing your trauma can feel like digging up old wounds that you spent a lot of energy burying or avoiding, but burying pain doesn’t actually work. Because trauma’s been woven into our nervous system and has (literally) altered our brain, it changes the way we see the world, whether we realize it or not. Unhealed trauma causes us to limp through life rather than truly enjoy our lives.

At Some point, “Just Getting By” Wasn’t an Option

I was tired of feeling “triggered,” overwhelmed and anxious. My trauma got in the way of fun and spontaneity, and I lived with a sense of impending doom.

Getting therapy for this took courage, perseverance and a couple of years to see major changes. Slowly though, I began to be less reactive. I still experienced life intensely (I’m an HSP, after all), but I had less “free floating” anxiety. I was triggered less often, and when I did get activated, I had time to breathe and think before reacting.

This Informed What I Do Now

Now, I specialize in working with HSPs who’ve experienced trauma. I do this work because I know firsthand that healing is possible when we get the right help.

Gone are the days when we had to “suck it up” and live with the hard things we’d been through. Now, trauma healing modalities are able to access the trauma that our body is still holding and heal it in a way that doesn’t retraumatize you.

How Can You Start Healing?

The first step is to recognize you have trauma. It wasn’t your fault, you’re not alone and there’s help for you.

Here are some steps you can take to start healing:

1. Seek out a therapist trained in a trauma modality like EMDR or Somatic Experiencing. You can filter for these on sites like Psychology Today.

2. Start practicing mindfulness of your physical experience. Most trauma survivors are disconnected from our bodies, so starting to notice your body sensations is crucial.

3. Try trauma-informed or gentle yoga. This also helps us come back into our bodies and start experiencing them as safe places to be.

4. Practice self-compassion. Healing from trauma is daunting work; we must approach it with self-love.

5. Develop safe relationships. Look for people who respond to you with kindness and acceptance the vast majority of the time.

6. Start learning how to regulate your emotions. These practical tools will help you regain calm when you get triggered.

This can be a lot to take in when you first learn about it, so take it slow.

Read the article again.

Take a deep breath.

And another.

And know that above all, there’s hope and healing for you.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

This story originally appeared on Intuitive Warrior.

Getty image via solarseven.

Originally published: January 8, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home